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Sensing SOMA

A meeting with gods? Through Reindeer urine? Carsten Höller’s grand exhibition posing as a science project, stimulates all human senses – for those lucky enough to afford it.

Image for Sensing SOMA
Photo by Janina Gallert

It begins with the smell of reindeer. Then comes the sound of singing canaries. Soon Hamburger Bahnhof’s barnyard laboratory comes into view. SOMA, Carsten Höller’s grand exhibition posing as a science project, stimulates all human senses – if you’re lucky.

“The whole exhibition is about luck,” the exhibition’s lead curator Dr. Dorothée Brill explains. “It’s amazing it happened.” Finding a dozen reindeer was a logistical challenge. Figuring out how best to collect the reindeer’s urine – more or less unheard of.

Soma, the potent hallucinogenic potion described in the Rigveda, a centuries-old Hindu text, is a myth. But that hasn’t stopped amateur and professional scientists alike from seeking its recipe. Höller, a trained biologist who found his way to contemporary art, decided to test one of the leading theories. Some suggest that fly Amanita, a mushroom consumed by reindeer, was the Soma described in the Rigveda. Believers drink reindeer urine, hoping for an encounter with the gods, unending wealth and true happiness.

SOMA’s castrated reindeer saunter about, and a frustrated pair begin to buck antlers, causing another sense – touch, this time – to awaken.

But what about taste? Can we taste? Our luck runs out. “We can’t unlock the refrigerators [where the psychedelic urinary concoction is kept] with the children running around,” says Brill. “But the people who stay overnight… nobody’s watching. They can drink it. It’s what Carsten would want.”

So can we stay the night? It turns out that even if we could pay the €1,000 overnight fee (spoiler alert: we can’t), the nights are all booked up by apparent hordes of urine-loving art enthusiasts.

“SOMA challenges our mode of perception, widening our approach to life,” says Brill. But this multi-sense, ‘perception-challenging’ project isn’t really an experiment. So how does it complicate our experience of art? Maybe by exposing the divide between art and science – pulling off both simultaneously may be impossible.

The exhibition’s central flaw might be its great insight, but giving Berliners the (hypothetical) chance to wander around the Hamburger Bahnhof drunk on reindeer urine in pajamas may be its true triumph.

Through February 6